Leroy Dzenga Features Writer —
National identity cards have turned into a currency as tobacco farmers at auction floors in Harare now use them as collateral to buy food with a promise to pay cash after they sell their tobacco.
The food prepared under questionable conditions has become a serious commodity at the different auction floors around the capital city. Among those who have been using “plastic money” in the form of national identification cards to buy food is a Mr Jemedze, 75.
He left his Centenary Farm about two weeks ago with plans to spend, at most, two days in Harare before returning to his tranquil environs in Mashonaland Central.
Little did he know that circumstances would bring in a new dynamic he had never before experienced in his long tobacco farming career. Delayed processes have kept him in a city he describes as “noisy” longer than he appreciates.
“I came here about two weeks ago thinking that there is less pressure at the floors and my tobacco would sell quickly,” he said.
His tobacco took about a week in the queue to get on the sales floor, a time he spent going through a riveting ordeal.
“I don’t know what happened but my bales took a week to be on the floors. I did not have much cash on me as I had spent most of it on transporting the tobacco,” Mr Jemedze said.
The unexpected slow procession at Tobacco Sales Floor left him stranded.
“I was left with nowhere to sleep because I could not go back home or seek accommodation too far from my produce,” Mr Jemedze explained.
He says he has been sleeping on hard ground with a thin cloth he has been using in the absence of a decent blanket. His tobacco only got to the floors on Wednesday afternoon and he had not made any sales.
“I still haven’t made a cent since I came here. I had to send a call back message to my nephew who brought me five dollars that I have been using to buy food although I am on my last dollar,” he said.
“As soon as I sell something I am heading home, I can’t be going through such gruelling circumstances.”
Among his gravest concerns are the ablution facilities at the floors and how they are failing to accommodate the swelling farmer population. He wishes after selling, his bank would consider his plight and offer him his cash fast.
“I owe people back home, I am unable to get in the field myself but I assign people to do physical duties as I instruct. Those people want their money and I can`t go back home without it because they have helped me,” he said.
Although Mr Jemedze feels like he has overstayed in the capital, at the Tobacco Sales Floor to be precise, there are some who have tripled his duration. One of the many who have been domiciled at the auction premises for more than three weeks is 52-year old Mrs Beatrice Katsande from Hurungwe.
She says although she has sold her tobacco, cash is still a must have lest she loses property to labourers back at her farm.
“We can’t go back home without cash because the people who helped us with the tobacco want their money.
“As you know tobacco farming is taxing, it is only a matter of time before they lose their patience with us,” she said.
Mrs Katsande also feels that the merchants are not giving her tobacco grades the prices they deserve. She said the conditions they are living in are difficult as they wait for their cash together with hundreds, if not thousands, of other farmers.
“We sleep in a space provided by TSF which is too small for all the farmers.
She added that the vendors who capitalise on the tobacco marketing season walk up into their place of rest any time of the night making resting a mammoth task. The idea of having to queue to relieve themselves or to take a bath has had Mrs Katsande suggesting that tobacco farmers are undervalued in this country.
“I do not think that we are respected enough, the conditions were are living in are not respectful and some of the scenes we see here put our dignity into question,” complained Mrs Katsande.
Sex workers have also been frequenting the area capitalising on homesick male farmers.
“Those girls come here in their skimpy dresses walking around at night looking for men to lure. Some of the things we are being made to endure are not easy, some of the children we see selling their bodies are very young,” she said.
With the cash crisis showing no signs of abetting soon, who is responsible for the farmers` welfare as they wait for their dues in the format they appreciate? Auction floor operators say their sole mandate is to act as a conduit between the sellers and buyers. Tobacco Sales Floor executive director Mr Peter Mujaya said they are trying to make the farmers` stay as decent as possible.
“We have always tried to bring convenience to the farmers who bring tobacco to our auction floors. We have brought banks close to the floors to make life easier for the farmers,” he said.
Mr Mujaya added that the processes within their auction floors do not take time but most farmers are waiting for cash from banks.
“We provide a platform where buyers and sellers meet; we make it convenient for both parties but we always try to go the extra mile to ensure that farmers are comfortable as they conduct their business.”
He mentioned the canteen facilities, clinic facilities and a police post situated around their complex as part of their way of ensuring that farmers are safe. In some instances they reach out to farmers who appear stranded.
“Sometimes we invite individual farmers we would have identified as having been here for a long time and offer them food.
“We also have bathing facilities for farmers here,” he said.
Mr Mujaya said they sometimes overstep their mandate to house the farmers out of the good relations shared between the two parties. He feels there are times their goodwill has been ill appreciated.
“Whenever there is a gathering there is bound to be problems somehow. The only place you don’t get that is a church,” he said.
TSF auction floors were perhaps the most affected by the cash grievances as they saw farmers demonstrating on their doorstep last week, frustrated by the absence of cash. Mr Mujaya maintained that TSF were not part of the equation.
“Farmers were complaining about cash. Some banks had run out of cash and the farmers got angry,” he said.
The money for tobacco purchases is deposited beforehand so the auction floor company is exonerated from the agitation. The Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board also argue that they need to stick to their core area which doesn’t include farmer welfare. TIMB Public Relations Manager and Communications Mr Isheunesu Moyo said they do not encourage long stays at the sales floors.
“Floors are not dormitories, we do not encourage farmers to stay at the floors for too long,” he said.
According to him, the TIMB mandate does not include telling sales floor operators to increase their facilities in the wake of swelling tobacco farmer numbers. There is a chance that farmers may be demoralised after this gruelling marketing season but the tobacco regulatory authority believes they have ideas to incentivise farmers.
“We are availing funding for drip irrigation and training farmers on good agronomic practices. We hope the farmers keep bringing us quality tobacco,” Mr Moyo said.
He added that cash complaints fall under the jurisdiction of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and banks, and that there is not much that TIMB can do to assist farmers to who want their payments in cash.
One of the issues affecting sales this year was the new e-marketing system. Most auction floors only used their e-marketing for a few weeks before abandoning it. Insiders said it was delaying the selling process.
Mr Moyo said the board was assessing its effectiveness and will communicate in due course after doing evaluations. Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Minister Dr Joseph Made said farmers deserve better conditions in sync with their hard work. According to Dr Made, the Ministry of Agriculture is engaging the relevant authorities to rectify the cash question being asked by farmers.
“We continue to engage with the Ministry of Finance, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and banks to see if there is a way to increase the cash allocation to farmers,” he said.
However, the RBZ is in a tight space as most of the crop has not yet been exported.
“We sympathise with the RBZ because most of the tobacco has not yet been exported. It is still in the processing stage and this means that they have not yet managed to get the foreign currency,” Minister Made said.
The auctioning system being used in Zimbabwe still follows a colonial template meant to serve a small group of farmers.
Now that the land was redistributed, the Government is mulling a change in approach.
“We have to lessen the farmers’ burden, this is why we instructed the TIMB to decentralise the tobacco auctioning because unlike in the colonial era where there were 200 tobacco farmers, there are more black tobacco farmers from different regions,” he said.
This was the rationale behind licensing auction floors in Karoi and Rusape. The Minister warned that the decentralising process was delicate and needs careful planning.
“Decentralising the auction floors has to be done carefully; buyers have to be willing to travel to get the crop from auctions close to the source.
This will ease the stress on the farmer who would have spent close to nine months working on their crop,” said Minister Made.
When this process is fully in motion, it will ease the congestion on Harare auction floors by ensuring smaller numbers per facility. Evidently, the centralised system is unsustainable, a situation compounded by a cash crisis that has left farmers enduring deplorable living conditions despite being in possession of a crop equated to gold in value.